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Access to public records is crucial, even if painful

By Johnita P. Due
updated 9:50 AM EST, Thu December 5, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Johnita Due: As a mother, I understand the pain of events such as Newtown
  • She says that as a media lawyer, she sees the need for the release of public records
  • "We can never learn the truth about our society...without full access to public documents"

Editor's note: Johnita P. Due, assistant general counsel for CNN, manages CNN's efforts to gain access to public records and proceedings under state and federal freedom of information laws and the First Amendment.

(CNN) -- I cried several times yesterday. This happened as I was reviewing scripts for CNN's upcoming coverage of the one-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut.

I also cried as I reviewed a script about the bravery of Antoinette Tuff who single-handedly prevented a similar tragedy from occurring in a suburban Atlanta elementary school.

Johnita Due
Johnita Due

I have an almost 8-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son. If I had lived in Newtown, my daughter could have been in one of the first-grade classrooms that was targeted. It is heartbreaking to think of what could have been and whether my children would have survived. My heart goes out to all of those who experienced such unthinkable loss.

CNN was not involved in the Associated Press' litigation to gain release of the Newtown 911 calls, but I applaud the court's decision in support of open government and public access to government records.

Senator: 911 tapes relive tragedy

I have read and heard some of the powerful and emotional pleas of families, attorneys and their supporters who felt the 911 calls should have been withheld. Yet I fully believe that access to public records is crucial, even if painful. We can never learn the truth about our society and its ills and inspirations without full access to public documents. No matter how well-meaning public officials may be in withholding records, it should not be left to them to determine what our reality is.

As a media lawyer, it is inevitable that I will be faced with advising on painful stories and the disturbing videos, images and sound that go along with them. We filed a lawsuit for access to the Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts, and we have recently gone to court to gain release of all records and data relating to the death of Valdosta, Georgia, teen Kendrick Johnson.

Some images I cannot bear to look at -- or sounds to hear -- but I will do so because I know we are committed to shedding light on important stories and issues. And maybe one day those stories will make a difference and prevent future tragedies and suffering of other families.

I realize not everybody is going to agree with how CNN handled the 911 calls, but one thing we can all agree on is that we need to hug our kids tighter.

I did that as soon as I walked in the door from work yesterday evening.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of Johnita Due.

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